Gustavo "Goose" Alvarez was trapped. The door between him and a mob of fellow inmates, many wielding makeshift weapons, could give way at any moment, and his main source of protection was a T-shirt he'd wrapped around his neck in case someone made a move for his jugular. Some of his dorm mates were praying for their lives.
It was 2009, and the Chino Prison Riots—11 hours of violence ignited by racial tensions between blacks and Latinos that would leave over 200 men injured—had erupted. Alvarez was serving out a six-year sentence in the prison at the time. When he saw a group of correctional officers flee through a window, he figured he was done for.
"I'm really just going, 'Wow. This is it. This is how I'm going to die,'" says Alvarez.
Photos taken in the aftermath of the riot betray a scene of destruction and scary-as-hell mayhem—the floor of one burned-out barrack is a dark swamp of charred bedding and personal effects. In others, mattresses lay everywhere, and walls are splattered with blood. Sides of buildings have man-sized holes torn into them. Shards of broken glass litter the grounds, along with novels, shoes, bibles, and letters.
While surveying the damage, then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger commented, "It looks like a scene from one of my movies, except this is real danger here and real destruction."
But while the ruination is compelling, one of the most poignant images features a barrack with comparatively minimal damage. In the corner of the photo of the mostly intact room, mixed in with the rubble, is a pile of about ten bright orange and green ramen packages. When I show the photo to Alvarez, he isn't surprised. "It was our staple," he says, noting that dried noodles and flavor packets, generally seen as the cheapest of meals in the outside world, served as a valuable commodity while he was doing his time.
"You can make anything with it. Believe it or not, you can use it as currency," he says.
Worth about a dollar during his time in Chino and legal tender for everything from gambling to getting your laundry done, those humble packages of ramen would turn out to be even more valuable than Alvarez could have ever imagined that night. The hot meal they produced would become a powerful symbol of the riots for him. It's that narrative that shapes his new book, Prison Ramen, which he coauthored with longtime friend, actor Clifton Collins, Jr.
The book starts during the riots, which Alvarez lived through but only thanks to the efforts of a fiftysomething O.G. Crip who managed to calm the younger black men down. Alvarez, in his mid-thirties and a father of three by that point, was able to see the would-be killers during that calm as "young dumb kids," following the same path he regretted taking.
"These kids, they're wearing pajamas—that's basically what the uniform is—and they're freezing and they're hungry. Their eyes, they changed. Now, I saw them as innocent. They don't know no better," says Alvarez.
An hour later, he and his dorm mates were combining their provisions to feed the group, which led to a meaningful dialogue between all-out enemies. "[Food] breaks the ice," he says.
The daily joys, pains, and struggles of finding nourishment while in lockup are examined in Prison Ramen. The most intriguing portions are the essays penned by Alvarez, though accounts from a few celebrities who've been incarcerated—like Danny Trejo and Slash—also appear. Part cookbook, it also features recipes that call for ingredients usually stocked in prison commissaries. Think ramen tamales made with pork rinds, corn chips, and refried beans.
The passages and recipes demonstrate a necessary intimacy that's forged between incarcerated individuals, whom Alvarez insists must leave the outside world behind as a matter of physical and mental health. "A lot of guys tend to have their mind on their girlfriend—what's she doing, where's she at—and their body in prison, and that doesn't go well. You're a walking zombie, and you can get hurt," he says.
Potlucking with your homies is a way to build ties with your surrogate family. Camaraderie and trust, he firmly believes, are built when prisoners who don't have much on their own pool their resources to make something delicious—say, a Sunday night goulash or chicken soup. Endlessly versatile, ramen is usually the base for these collaborative dishes, with the flavor packet acting as a mother sauce.
Father Greg Boyle, the founder of LA's Homeboy Industries (the world's largest and most successful gang rehabilitation program) and who also has an essay in the book, echoes Alvarez. Sharing food—or "breaking spread" as they call it at Homeboy—he says, helps to bring even staunch rivals together.
"At Homeboy, we regularly 'break spread,' as the experience helps remind us that we belong to each other. When we break spread, we delight in the same sensation, and delight is where the healing is—for all of us," says Boyle.
Aside from the bonding it affords, making your own food (even if you're using processed snacks) can also provide the nutrition that the average state-issued meal plan doesn't even attempt to. Alvarez tells of using smoked oysters, baby clams, and squid purchased from the commissary or sent in care packages to make a siete mares soup. Ceviche and pico de gallo were also made possible once his barrack was allowed to grow vegetables in the yard. If all else failed, stealing produce from the kitchen—a serious offense that could get you months in the hole—was seen as a risk worth taking.
"We would go through a whole day of sneaking around and setting up distractions just to get this certain product to my bed area. Once you realize what that product is—it's a tomato, it's a banana, it's an apple," he says, adding that for him a kiwi was like gold.
It's these kinds of daily stuggles inherent to prison life and the terror he experienced during the riot that have moved Alvarez to warn young people. Admitting that he's done some terrible things in his past, he says he feels like he finally has a purpose, and he hopes Prison Ramen will be a tool for making connections with the at-risk kids he mentors though organization like Homeboy Industries.
"I'll talk to anybody," says Alvarez. "I don't care. I'll stop what I'm doing and talk to them and tell them, 'This is a lie, bro. That prison stuff, it's a lie from the devil. You know what you get out of this? You become the most hardcore criminal, and you know what you get? You get a five-by-seven cell for the rest of your life … You never get out.'"